Thud… Thud… Thud! That’s the sound of phonebooks you opted out from landing on your porch in the near future if Seattle loses a lawsuit brought by phonebook publishers. The case is a perfect example of big business using “corporate personhood” to waste taxpayer money and intimidate the city council from passing common sense regulation.

Since the phonebook opt out program took effect in May 2011, more than 75,000 homes and businesses have stopped nearly 40,000 unwanted phonebook deliveries, saving 375 tons of paper.

The city won the initial lawsuit in just two months with help of outside counsel Summit Law Group but the phonebook companies’ appeal has dragged on for more than a year. Cost to taxpayers of defending the law to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has likely exceeded a hundred thousand dollars, if not much more. If it loses, the city could be required to pay the phonebook companies’ lost revenue and legal fees as well.

Corporate Personhood and Free Speech

The companies allege in their complaint that the phonebook ordinance, “denies [their] rights guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.” (free speech and due process). If not for the legal concept of “corporate personhood“, the phonebook companies wouldn’t be able to sue Seattle to assert Constitutional rights originally written only for people.

The word corporation doesn’t appear in the Constitution but the U.S. Supreme Court first granted personhood protections to corporations in 1819 and then began extending human rights to them under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1886.

The Fourteenth Amendment was actually added to the Constitution to remedy discrimination against freed slaves and was the legal basis used to end segregation in Brown v. Board of Education (1954). In other words, the phonebook companies are using anti-discrimination laws of the post civil war era as the legal foundation to sue Seattle.

The rules of our legal system are now rigged to favor corporations. Rather than ask the question, “are the phonebook companies people?” and “do they have the right to free speech?” the courts have focused largely on whether the content in the phonebooks (advertisements and phone listings) represent free speech which can’t be regulated or commercial speech, which can be.

The phonebook lawsuit is ridiculous on its merits as well. The companies claim, “The First Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits government from … enforcing the desire of citizens to avoid communications [and] from prying into citizens’ preferences regarding communications they seek to avoid.” Oh, really?

Dex, Supermedia and the Yellow Pages are trying to use law made in the 19th century to force their failing 20th century business model down the throat of our 21st century city.

Making Law in Seattle the Corporate Way

These kinds of cases put the city council in a defensive posture concerned that its actions could provoke other expensive lawsuits. What kind of democracy do we have when the city council is afraid to regulate local nuisances and environmental harms?

In the past month, the city council issued advisory resolutions on two major issues (Citizens United and escalating coal train traffic) rather than write binding legislation which would actually protect our community.

Over the past few years, we’ve seen corporations take several approaches to influence what happens in Seattle:

  • When the Seattle City Council created a 20 cent fee on plastic bags in 2008, the American Chemistry Council spent $1.4 million dollars sponsoring a referendum to overturn the law.
  • When Costco wanted to privatize liquor sales in Washington State, they spent $22 million promoting Initiative 1183.
  • When Chris Hansen wanted to build a new NBA arena, he secretly lobbied Mayor McGinn for months to garner a pledge for $200 million in city funds.

The phonebook lawsuit is just one more way corporations leverage “corporate personhood” and free speech “rights” to sue the city or spend money on elections to manipulate the law in their favor.

How Initiative 103 Reigns in Corporate Abuses

If Initiative 103 is enacted by voters, corporations wouldn’t have personhood rights or free speech rights. They wouldn’t be able to spend money on elections or pay signature gatherers on initiatives within the city limits. And, they wouldn’t be able to lobby public officials behind closed doors.

I103 emphasizes our Right to Self Government and the elevation of peoples’ rights over corporate rights:

5. (e) Corporate Preemption Powers. (1) Corporations in violation of the rights or prohibitions established by this ordinance, or seeking to engage in activities prohibited by this ordinance, shall not possess the authority or power to enforce State or federal preemptive law against the people of this municipality, or to challenge or overturn municipal ordinances adopted by this municipality, when that enforcement or challenge interferes with the rights asserted by this ordinance, or interferes with the authority of the municipality to protect the health, safety, and welfare of its residents.

I103 also provides Rights for Nature which would provide additional authority to stop the production and delivery of unwanted phonebooks.

If I103 passes, it would be the first time 300,000+ voters in a major metropolitan city tell the courts to eliminate corporate personhood and judge-made constitutional “rights”.

Please help qualify Initiative 103 on the ballot: print out the petition and gather signatures from your family, friends and colleagues, volunteer with us at summer festivals and share us on Facebook. Questions? Check out our FAQ or email us.

Posted by Jeff Reifman

Jeff is a technology consultant based in the Pacific Northwest.

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